American Slavery in 1848: An Evil with no Redeeming Features

This appeared in Frederick Douglass’s North Star on December 1, 1848. It was a reprint of an editorial from the Free Soil Standard.

This institution of slavery is an evil which has not a single redeeming feature. In most cases, whatever is lost by one set of men is gained by another; but in this instance, it is not so, for the slaveholders and the slaves are alike injured. The latter, in consequence of being almost deprived of education, and kept in continued subjugation, are reduced almost to the condition of brutes; while the former, by being placed beyond the necessity of labor, lead lives of habitual indolence, and pervert those faculties which were given to them for the noblest purposes.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.
The influence upon the minds and the social condition of the colored race is pitiable in the extreme. We behold a race of men who, we are assured by high authority, were created in the image of God, and who were placed in this world, in order that they may prepare for a higher state of existence, deprived almost entirely of the means of intellectual culture, and kept by their owners, like the horses in their stalls, in a sound and healthy condition, simply with a view to pecuniary advantage. To those unfortunate beings, the pleasures of social life, the higher pleasures of intellectual pursuits, and the still purer pleasures of rational piety are almost entirely unknown. With reference to the slaves, the selfish policy of man counteracts the benevolent designs of Deity, and the light He intended should beam upon their darkened minds is almost excluded by artificial regulations, which state governments have formed for the purpose of keeping them in perpetual bondage.

Yes! in this glorious Republic, and in the midst of the light of the nineteenth century, there are hundreds of thousands of adults who are kept by the wicked policy of man in profound ignorance, who, as far as regards intellectual improvement, are mere children, and who have not yet entered upon that career of improvement which nature has opened before them. The stars and stripes – the glorious banner of the free – floats as proudly over them as over us, but those emblems of freedom are as unintelligible to them as the hieroglyphics of Egypt. The truths of the Declaration Independence, which, when they are uttered, awaken thrilling emotions in the bosom of every true American, are unheard by them, or if they are heard, they are mysteries which they do not comprehend. Even the doctrines of religion do not exercise their proper influence upon them, for they seldom enlighten their minds, or purify their hearts. Destitute of the great gift of reason and of other faculties, they might perform all the duties which they now perform, and enjoy all the pleasures they now enjoy.

Slavery interferes greatly with the domestic happiness of the slave population. The pleasant associations that linger around the home of even the humble cottager, have no connection with the rude cabin of the slave. The inmates of those unsightly abodes are generally as destitute of interest as the dwellings are of beauty, and the slaves retire to them, at the close of their daily labor, like prisoners to their cells, not to mingle in intelligent conversation with their families, or to enjoy the refined pleasures of social life, but to rest from the fatigues of the day, and to gratify their admiral propensities. All those things that constitute the attractions of the homes of freemen are unknown to the cheerless abodes of slaves. They are more like irrational brutes than like beings endowed with immortal minds, susceptible of endless improvement in knowledge and in virtue.

The institution of slavery also affects the family relations of slaves. As they are entirely the property of their masters, and as they may be disposed of by them, whenever their interest or caprice may dictate, the family relations are liable, at any time, to be disturbed. Husbands may be torn from their wives, and children from their parents, at the option of their owners. Slaves have natural affections, as well as civilized men, and we cannot doubt but they have experienced a vast amount of suffering, in consequence of their separation.

Slavery also produces debasing effects on the morals of slaves. It is the nature of slavery to destroy every noble feeling of the mind and to leave in existence those of a groveling nature. Persons thus circumstanced fall more easily victims to the artifice of unprincipled men. Even in civilized countries, where slavery does not exist, many of the young and inexperienced, are enticed from the path of virtue by the wickedness of artful men. And it must, in the nature of things, be still worse in communities where the persons of individuals are within the control of their owners. We have reason to believe that in those communities offenses against virtue and decency are frequently committed, that unsuspecting slaves often become easy prey to those who should be the protectors of their innocence. We have reason to believe that the slaves are as destitute of virtue as they are of intelligence and that the want of both is to be attributed mainly to their servile condition.

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